Let’er Buck: The Life of a Cowboy

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Lack of sleep makes concentration difficult. I’m on my third cup of coffee and I can’t help but stare out the window trying to recapture last night’s fading dream of a life of a cowboy.

“找不到你公司税务登记证 ! 在哪里?”

The sound of these foreign words spin me back to reality here in China.

如果找不到太麻烦!”  My secretary again looks at me for a response.

I shut my eyes and focus on the feeling of “Let’er Buck” – a touch of the West, a touch of home.

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A world away, I taste the dew of the morning and roll out of bed to gaze over never-ending wheat fields.  I imagine saddling up the best friend a cowboy will ever have and head out to face the day.

The feeling of adventure mixed with a taste of adrenaline I suppose is why the cowboy often has a wistful smile as he saddles up.

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It doesn’t take long for the soft eyes of my horse to be replaced by the glare of my secretary. Her continual banter in Chinese steals me away from my daydream.

The figures on the spreadsheets in front of me wrestle each other in an endless battle to determine whether the year will see a profit or a loss.

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There will be a lot more wrestling with figures before the day ends and the freedom of a ride has never felt so far away. Running on the wind lifted by the cheers of a crowd.

I hold up my hand, and the Chinese words stop mid-sentence and for a second all is quiet, a rare moment of peace.

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“I should’ve been a cowboy…” I mutter, a common wish for most guys I grew up with, although for me I admit a life on the back of a bucking bronc is not in my blood.

The courage to ride requires a special spirit infused at birth.  The adrenaline rush of the ride, the feel of the rope, speed of the chase and mixing blood with mud is a lifestyle meant only for the few.

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What I am chasing though, is almost as elusive, the spirit of the cowboy. The legend created by songs and stories I’ve heard growing up: the down-to-earth attitude, importance of treating each other well and when taking a fall ~ fearlessly dusting off and saddling up again.

Dusting myself off, I stare at my computer and pound out another business email…

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The essence of the life of a cowboy defines the spirit of my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon. Waking up every morning with the annual September dream of becoming a cowboy, if only for a day.

To walk out onto the infield grass and take it all in, feeling the crowd with the beating heart of the grandest rodeo in the world, the Pendleton Round-Up.

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Around the world there are company executives pilfering the paychecks of their workers, politicians focused on lining their pockets and places where a hard day’s work has become a myth of days gone by.

Yet the philosophy of a cowboy remains true over the centuries. Put in a full day’s work, take care of family and friends and with bones aching, fearlessly climb back into the saddle again.

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The cowboy spirit flows through Pendleton with the memories of past cowboy heroes such as Lane Frost, Mike Boothe and Mike Currin – men as genuine in the arena as they were outside.

Also the present champions, Trevor Brazile, winner of four consecutive all-around titles at the Pendleton Round-Up and bareback champion Ty Breuer, showing the heart and spirit of cowboys still run true.

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For some, the dreams of the West and the cowboys who built America may be disappearing, however they still remain a strong foundation for the people of Pendleton.

Ranchers and farmers understand there is no such thing as an easy ride and to grab an opportunity when it arrives, knowing it may not come again. So when the rope leaves their hand there is no doubt it will find its mark.

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The echo of the rodeo reverberates in my mind, as my fingers struggle to tap out a message on my iPhone. These hands stand in stark contrast to the callused hands of a cowboy holding a rope and reigns.

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Any calluses I do have are quickly fading away, perhaps similar to the fading cheers a cowboy hears as he walks away from the arena one last time.

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Years ago when I was in my mid-20s, I was talking to a bronc rider after an excellent ride and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.” 

Patience.  Belief.  Hard work. Cowboy logic.

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There are many things I’ve learned from rodeo champions over the years, but perhaps the most valuable lessons have come from the local farmers and ranchers.

Growing up, my annual summer job at PGG operating Rew grain elevator during harvest stands as one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had.

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The many people I worked with at Rew helped form my character, each one having the heart of a Pendleton cowboy. Two such cowboys, Bob Byers, who can create a solution for any problem and Terry Simpson who has an outlook on life second to none; both men define Pendleton perfectly.

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From Pendleton to Calgary to Cheyenne and to cities around the world, the spirit of the life of a cowboy flows free and strong. Looking out the window again, I put on a George Strait CD to fit my mood and the music even makes my secretary smile.

Here in China, I’ve found the soul of the cowboy both in myself and in the great people I work with over here.

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Closing my eyes, I feel the wind on my face and the pounding of hooves and earth blending perfectly with the music. I feel great.

Yes, I may be thousands of miles from home but all I need to hear are the words “Let’er Buck” and I am right back in the middle of the Pendleton Round-Up arena and it’s a perfect day.

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The beginning of December is where the last piece of magic will be performed when future champions get ready to ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Cowboys who grew up in small towns around the country, holding onto a belief that one day their names will be dancing in the bright lights of Vegas.  Their focus locked-in on the final ride of the year and the chance to etch their name in the history books and become a part of cowboy folklore.

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Good luck and good health to all. 祝你们好运气,健康.

Let’er Buck!

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260 Comments on “Let’er Buck: The Life of a Cowboy

  1. Hello Randall,
    I was just about to log off tonight when I received notification of your latest post. And I’m so glad to have checked it out! As always, you amaze with your combination of “action” through your photos and “philosophy” through your thoughtful writing. It was a real treat to get a glimpse into your current daily life, and to this other special world of a special group of people. As always, thanks much for sharing.

    • Thank you Takami ~ this post was a fun one to live through and write. There is nothing quite like a home town, and growing up watching the R-Up, there simply is not a better group of people to be around. I actually really wanted to capture “it all”, but it’s impossible as there is too much to see and feel, such a special place. Happy you enjoyed it!

  2. What a super post, always good to visit a totally different world for a while (don’t see too many cowboys in my neck of the woods!) Love your thoughts on cowboys and life in general and some excellent images to go along with them, Cheers! Jane (View from a French Hillside)

    • Great comment Jane, I absolutely agree, visiting a totally different world can open the eyes and senses. This year we had a great bareback rider from Marseille, France at the rodeo (Evan Jayne)…so maybe in the future you’ll be seeing a few more cowboys in your neck of the woods. Thank you.

  3. Those are one fine set of photos sir! If I may be permitted a bit of technical inquiry, what gear did you shoot them with please?

    • Thank you John. I shot with Canon, both a 5D MkIII and a 7D. The 7D was great for action (fast and has a x1.6 crop factor that worked well). I like full-frame and feel of the 5D, so used it about 50% of the time. For lens, mainly used my 70-200mm and for non-action a 24-70mm when possible. Shot one morning with a 400mm DO lens, but the shots just were not all that crisp – a good lens but just didn’t work out on this shoot.

      • Thanks for this. I am currently using a Lumix GH4 4/3ds rig but I have to confess a set of photos like yours makes me think a lot about going full frame. I worry about the weight though.
        I’ve never seen as good a set of rodeo shots as were in your post today.

      • At some point in the future, I will move into a full-frame mirrorless (Sony has a great one out right now). Small and relatively light (although limited lens selection). Thanks again and hope you come to shoot the Round-Up ~ I’ll buy you a Pendleton Whiskey.

      • Thank you for that information; though the letters and numbers didn’t mean anything to me because I’m an iPhone point and shoot ‘photographer’ 🙂 Equipment aside, it was those moments that you captured that captured me. It is how you ‘see’.

      • It is something else, the iPhones today are better than some of the top cameras just a few years ago 🙂 Incredible photos from those little guys (which make them ideal for capturing special moments…I should begin using the iPhone!). Thank Mary.

  4. Fantastic photos, Randall. I love especially the action shots and the compositions. And it all seems kind of funny somehow given your physical location as you wrote this post…loved the Chinese interspersed in your narrative.

    • It really was funny as I was trying to put together this post – and kept having China/HK bureaucratic paperwork get in the way…the complete opposite of a cowboy feeling. Figured I better not fight it and blend it in somehow. Thank you very much Angeline.

  5. What is a rew grain elevator? And what was the most important life lesson you learnt doing that? 😉 I love these cowboy posts that you do, the photos are always so spectacular!

    • Rew is the name of a grain elevator just outside of Pendleton ~ it is where local farmers during harvest will take their grain in trucks and dump it, where it will be stored until it is sold by PGG (a farmer’s co-op). The farmers there taught me everything about the business and since I did not grow up a farmer, I worked as hard as I could so I wouldn’t disappoint them – it was just a great experience. They taught me about respect. The elevator is off I-84, a major highway and every time I head back to town I love the sight of it. Don’t know if this photo will come through, but it is on the right hand side. You do need to come visit the Round-Up, a special place to be.

      • Ah wow I’ve come back to see your photo. It’s beautiful, the colours of the sky, the fields, and the grain elevator adds interest to the whole thing. I like how you said you worked doble hard because you don’t come from a family of farmers. Funnily enough, opposite story here, once I had a young trainee and she did come from a family of cosmetic and medicine manufacturers, and she tried her hardest to try hard to prove to me that she was good not just because she was born into it 🙂
        I’m sure that must have been a really interesting job and you must have learn lots of curious things.

      • Great story Sofia, your young trainee who wanted to prove her worth (even though she could rest on her family) is what companies/communities need. Wish you well.

      • Sometimes, I’d like nothing else but to be back there again with the sweat, dust and smell of grain 🙂

  6. What a fascinating post, and I can’t get over those perfect action shots! By the way, have you read or seen The Longest Ride?

    • Thank you very much Hien, I have not read or seen The Longest Ride yet…would you recommend both?

      • Randall, I read the book, which I recommend, but haven’t see the movie yet. I will probably go see it mainly because of the rodeo scenes.

      • Great, thank you – I like to read the books before I see the movie, and this sounds like a great one. Cheers ~

    • Ha ha, yes that song made its rounds today when I was writing the post. Great song and thank you.

  7. if you hear the song “should’ve been a Cowboy” then you were born one with a cowboy heart….and will always be one
    I had to turn on Toby Kieth 🙂 I have listened to that more times than I can remember, but
    it takes me back to Friday nights watching Larry Mahan (and many other cowboys)make 8 seconds look like the perfect dance with a 2000lb Brahman in the dirt ……
    so many great rides and then some where the look can be the saddest one you will ever witness, all great cowboys who dared to take a ride
    You photos are instilled with the essence of Cowboys and Rodeo’s, your words always bring them to life where we hear the announcer
    say next up is… followed by cheers
    Thank you for the remembering of great nights this morning, and as Tracy Bryd comes on with The Keeper of the Stars, I leave you with being the Keeper of the Dreams of a Cowboy ….
    Take Care…You Matter…
    )0(
    maryrose

    • You say it very well MaryRose, there is nothing quite like the feel of a rodeo (really a timeless element of the art of the rodeo). Larry Mahan rode in Pendleton, a true legend. I’ve always thought it pretty lucky to have grown up in Pendleton – Keeper of the Dreams of a Cowboy, I like that. Thank you again.

      • I think we should shorten it to Keeper of Cowboy Dreams, your beautiful photographs are like turning pages in life’s journals 🙂
        yes you have capture the Spirit of a Cowboy in them
        Take Care…You Matter

  8. I think I have a biological alarm clock, because this morning I knew that I must open my email.There must be something there…and it was! Thank you for sharing your magical dream! Good luck and good health to you!

  9. Fantastic series and write up. “Should I have been a Cowboy?” is a very good question.

  10. Great post Randall. I love how you weave so many elements of photos, fun, life lessons and obvious respect for the hardworking cowboys and farmers. Thanks for a very different post that I surprised myself by liking. 🙂

    • Thanks Brad, glad you liked the post. The world of a cowboy is quite different – the heartbeat of the farmers & ranchers of America, and that is quite an amazing accomplishment.

  11. As always, beautiful work!
    You need to check out “The Gaucho Martin Fierro,” by Jose Hernandez. The story of Argentina’s most famous (fictional) cowboy. I think you’d appreciate it. :0)

  12. Wow! My favourite post of your so far. The tribute to cowboys, the grit and feel of the job, the amazing photos and the story woven with Chinese realities – amazing. Hats off!

    • Thanks Lyle, seeing all the hard work (from the top to bottom) at the Round-Up was inspirational, and fits the mold for work-life of good people around the world. Let’er Buck ~

  13. Let your spirit flow free and strong Randall! Amazing photos that capture the outer and inner world of the cowboy. I see you💛

  14. “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.”
    Patience. Belief. Hard work. Cowboy logic.”

    So pleased I read this today 🙂 beautiful post.

    • Nothing beats Cowboy Logic, and those words are just perfect when its a rainy day 🙂 Thank you and wishing you well Charlotte.

    • Thank you DellaAnna ~ the roping shots were tough to catch panning, but the feel of movement for me makes it worth doing. Cheers to a great day.

  15. Randall, an incredible post. Not only amazing 📸 photos, but thought-provoking philosophy included. I know nothing about cowboys and rodeos! I do now though. 🐴 Thanks so much! Happy November! 😌 Chryssa

    • Thank you Chryssa, I’d say if you went to any rodeo you’d get a similar feel for the people, cowboys and the great philosophy of small town life 🙂 Wish you a great November as well. I like this “🐴” !

  16. I say quit your job and move to Montana, but then, I retired early! Laughing. Those lucky cowboys. Fabulous series as usual my friend.

    • I’d like nothing better than retiring early and heading out to a ranch somewhere…isn’t that the perfect dream 🙂 Thank you Cindy ~

  17. Fabulous photographs as always Randall and a superb post. I always enjoy these posts very much, I very much identify with the ‘spirit of the cowboy’ you describe so well. Honesty, integrity, decency.. it’s all still there somewhere I know and Oregon looks like a fine place to start looking!

    • Nothing quite like a spirit of a cowboy, and it is even better when you bump into one in a new city ~ honesty and integrity, the hallmark of such people. Let’er Buck 🐴!

  18. Thank you, Randall; you do ‘action’ well – freezing those moments to share with us. I appreciate your prose too; a glimpse of your ‘real’ life and those of your dreams.

    • Anytime dreams brush up next to reality, it can be a pretty great moment. Thank you very much Mary ~

  19. Hi Randall, Your ability to tell a succinct and beautiful story that pairs perfectly with your images is a real gift. I feel transported in your posts. Your stop-action images are a thrill and your eye for detail and telling a story with photos is impressive. That image of the cowboy on the white horse with the blur of background- “the cowboy spirit”- will stay with me for a while.

    • Thank you Jane, very nice words to hear. Growing up in this area, the story came pretty easily – and as you know, there is nothing like trying to create a story with photography 🙂 Let’er Buck 🐴!

  20. Amazing grasp of the action! And beautifully composed.

    And I like the cowboys and Indians series.

    • Thank you Georgia ~ enjoyed putting together these posts quite a bit. Cheers to a great day and of course Let’er Buck 🐴!

  21. I love how you put the cowboy life into your going about bussiness of the day. Both can take different form of courage but nevertheless they are courage. Not the least, your photographs are just perfect!

    • Well said and I think it is true. It is why having & watching heroes as a kid is important – we all need the courage to live a good life. Thank you and wish you a great day ~

    • Thank you Sedge ~ I agree watching the horseshoeing and the way they handled the horses was pretty captivating.

  22. Beautiful write up, Randall. Brilliant photos as usual too. My favourite would have to be the eleventh one from the top, or number 2 as you named the image. Didn’t know you like to daydream that much at work. And put on your favourite music in the background. Sounds like you have it easy 😉

    Funny how the simple moments are the ones that leave the biggest impact on your life. Your summer job all the way back then sounded interesting – a job where you not only made friends but one that also ignited what matters to you deep within you. It’s fascinating you are so passionate about cowboys and what the Pendleton cowboy stands for – a world that is completely foreign to me…yet I feel that I can relate. The philosophy of the cowboy sounds really simple as you explained it, “Patience. Belief. Hard work.”; work hard, fall down, get up and soldier on. Visualise, believe, do it. Lovely photo you shared in the comments of the grain elevator. It sounds like a lot of hard work operating it. Good on you.

    • Thank you Mabel ~ nothing quite like a work day with music 🙂 It is something to think back at how I’ve heard & seen things growing up but it didn’t really hit until I was able to think back on how important it was. I think people begin to understand how integrity & sincerity shapes a good life and we begin admiring those pieces of it ~ which is why I think you and others relate to this piece. A cowboy’s life and philosophy is pretty simple and powerful just as you state above 🙂 Also, happy you liked the photo – it was one of the more difficult shots I had. Cheers and Let’er Buck 🐴all the way down-under.

      • PS. We have had quite a few Australian cowboys ride and do well in Pendleton too ~ you should plan a trip up and see the wild-west in all its glory!

      • It’s funny how moments pass us by and we don’t realise what’s happening then. Perhaps we’re naive, or perhaps we are living in the moment. It takes a certain mind to reflect on what has happened. “integrity & sincerity shapes a good life” – such an interesting strand of thought. Living that way brings about a positive outlook, and the more positive we are the more hope we have.

        I would love to listen to music at work but the nature of my job doesn’t allow me to. So for me, nothing quite like ending a work day with music 🙂

      • I like the way you have phrased this Mabel, as I think it was the way pioneers in the USA lived when they traveled west and relied on hope ~ “Living that way brings about a positive outlook, and the more positive we are the more hope we have.” And of course, there is always time for music in life…

  23. What a wonderful series of action shots. Even the stills are great (as usual).

  24. You are half a world away from the rest of us, do you know that? Your images are beautiful and entertaining as always, but it is your story that transports me every time. Lovely piece. 😊

    • To hear such great words from you Ali, a master-storyteller, is going to make me sleep very well tonight. Thank you and happy you enjoyed a look into the West. Wishing you a great day.

  25. What a thrilling collection Randall ! Edge of the seat stuff … those cowboys seem fearless !
    The old fashioned values of life have become so distorted in many ways in todays world your post is a wonderful reminder of what should be important to us all .
    How marvellous to take just a little time out to with some great music to recall such memories of younger years . I’m sure it set you well up to tackle possibly some less than thrilling bureaucratic business 😉

    • It is something else to see these young men fearlessly compete, get bucked-off and then dust themselves off and get ready to ride again. A commitment towards doing a job and getting it done correctly…love it. Beats my sitting for hours talking to the tax department. Thank Poppy ~

  26. I thought the days of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and the like got over long ago. Dalo has proved me wrong! Amazing pictures that come to life! When I admired the clarity in the pictures I thought, “this guy uses great equipment”. But that’s merely half the story. You have the instinct to pick the right moment and the panning shots were so well done; I could even hear the din of the crowds !

    • Ha, ha…those days are still going strong, and the cowboys are winning. I think having been to this rodeo so many times, it was easier to envision where a good shot be taken…and then again, the talent was sure out there in the arena as well. Thank you much.

  27. I like the point – counterpoint of your photos and cowboy spirit philosophy applied to life anywhere. Good read.

    • Thank you very much ~ and yes, the cowboy philosophy fits with good living/life anywhere. Cheers ~

  28. I’m so happy to live in the pockets out west where kids still do the rodeos at the county fairs. Going to Pendleton would be a thrill. Our timing was off. We’ve traveled through Pendleton a couple of times this past year, but never during Roundup. Your action shots are simply amazing! Nice ones to dream with while you’re so far away.

    • Isn’t is a great thing to see – a part of old culture (at least by US standards) still going strong in pockets out west and if anything getting stronger. If you do get the chance to visit Pendleton during R-Up, you’ll see both the history and then modern talent of the west. Agree with you, it is also very nice to dream about when so far away. Cheers to a good day ~

  29. 太棒了! Your fantastic action shots made my head spin 🙂 Best rodeo shots I’ve seen. I could feel the movement and hear the cheer. And the interplay of the two realities made the narrative even more powerful. Cheers to a great weekend.

    • 谢谢你!When it comes to world class rodeos, Pendleton pretty much comes out on top. Cowboys really love it here too (the grass infield is unique and an added challenge). Wish you a great weekend as well.

  30. magnifique – as usually… 🙂 btw, I’m hummin’ “The Joker” – Steve Miller Band: 😉

  31. I am blown away by the realism, movement and magic of these shots, dear Dalo…
    An excellent gallery and beautiful post… I hope you have a great friday and weekend ahead. Love and best wishes. Aquileana 🐚⛵️💦

    • Thank you Camelia, my goal from now on is to bring spectaculous photographies your way ~ wishing you a great weekend ~ take care.

  32. What a great post! First, I read the story because I just could not stop. Then I scrolled back to see the pictures. Cowboy spirit lives in you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for your stunning picture stories.

    • When writing is as enjoyable as the photography, which is often not the case, I’m happy and here it definitely was true. Pendleton pretty much helped write the whole thing and the talent of the rodeo supplied the rest 🙂 Thank you Inese, enjoy the weekend.

      • Thank you for your stories, both spoken and photographed.
        My best wishes to you!
        Inese

  33. Only in movies I learnt about Cowboys. Your photos and essay made gave me a different perspective. Such a tough life that builds character. Wonderful post as ever. Does China have Cowboys?

    • Thank you very much P., I think that is why people respect and admire the ethics of the cowboy, hard working group of people with great character. The western part of China and Inner Mongolia have great horsemen, and farmers who work very hard ~ but not cowboys in the same sense of the word as we would describe a cowboy.

  34. I had an enjoyable time reading this post. Loved how you well you blended the tax issues and the life of cowboy all at once leading to the essence of life in general! ❤ I liked “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.” in particular. It reminds me of one of the Chinese sayings – "be the first to bear hardships, the last to enjoy comforts". It is something I heard a lot when growing up and I learnt that a lot from my yoga practice as well. 😉

    The spirits of the cowboy are seeping through each photo – the way they move, the courage they have and the passion they have. It is what your photos truly brilliant. Your amazing photos and writing made this post a piece of art ❤ Have a great weekend! 🙂

    • Thank you Khloe, I figured if I intersperse my life along with that of a cowboy ~ it makes life more interesting 🙂 Being in my home town for the whole of Round-Up week was pretty special, so much going on (from the rodeo to the Happy Canyon pageant at night and bull riding) it was something to see so much passion for this lifestyle and as you say the courage to live it ~ also made the photography that much easier to find a nice shot. Wish you a great week and happy autumn.

      • You’re most welcome. Sure, it is special to witness something you admire so much especially it is your hometown. ❤ Hope everything all sorted out for you! 😉

  35. Those action shots are truly fantastic, Dalo. Images that feed daydreams. An aunt and uncle of mine have lived the cowboy life for all of their adult lives. Not the rodeo scene, but the ranch, cattle roundup lifestyle. They are battered and tired and in constant pain from injuries old and new. When their 4 kids were young, they often went hungry. But they still wouldn’t have traded that way of life for a regular job. I guess it’s a kind of religion for some.

    • “Images that feed daydreams” ~ that is a great thought. There is something special about the cowboy life, I see it in so many good people I know back home – a life they wouldn’t trade for anything and I can fully understand why. Makes me start thinking again “I should’ve ben a cowboy…” Must have been fun visiting your aunt and uncle as a kid, learning a bit of the real world ~ thank you very much Julie.

  36. Randall, wow another golden post full of fantastic photos and chock full of wisdom. Thank you so much! I could not help but read the comments about cameras. I just bought a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone that has a camera that is blowing me away. Yet, my Canon I would not trade for because I can get effects that I cannot get with my phone camera. You cannot beat the clarity on the Samsung. Yet IMO there is more richness, depth, texture with my Canon. I must admit carrying around a very light camera compared to 25 to 30 pounds of equipment is a good incentive to shoot with my phone and then to get creative in the editing rooms. It also depends on what I am shooting that decides which camera I use. Your images are outstanding as is. I couldn’t even begin to imagine anything better from you. Love, Amy ❤

    • Thank you very much Amy, there are many great cameras out there – and the cell phone cameras have evolved so much it is amazing. Still, for now I stick with my DSLR 🙂 Although I am taking a look at the mirrorless cameras, I think they’d be a great tool to have. Cheers to a good week!

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